In June 1967, I walked across the quad of Howard University, a light-skinned, 19-year-old sophomore. It was Black Power days, when I was on fire to learn the black history America had largely ignored. On that wide walkway, I ran into a boy from class who broke into a toothy smile, stuck out his much darker hand, and shook mine vigorously, laughing like he had no sense.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Congratulations for what?”
“For not being a bastard anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, snatching my hand away. “I was born legit.”
“No, you weren’t,” he said. The day before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia had overturned laws in 16 states outlawing interracial marriage, and he assumed this meant my parents’ marriage was finally legal. In fact, my parents were married in New York, where their union was officially sanctioned, but the Loving decision was still a watershed — the start of a long journey to learn the truth about my mixed family’s place in America’s racial landscape.
Nearly 25 years before Loving, my parents married for love. To escape Indiana’s anti-miscegenation laws, my mother staged her own disappearance, going underground to marry my father in New York. After she vanished, the FBI was called in to search for her, and finally pronounced her dead, likely the victim of foul play. Her family still believed her dead when Loving was won.
When my brothers and I were born in the 1940s, the federal census’s racial categories dictated who we were. We were biologically mixed blood, but it said NEGRO on our birth certificates, with no indication of our mother’s whiteness. For more than 50 years, on government and school forms, job applications, doctors’ records, and the census, we dutifully checked the box that said Negro or Black. The facts of our births meant nothing to the Census Bureau. By the centuries-old “one-drop rule,” one drop of black blood made us 100 percent Negro. The government said so.
However, in my private life, checking that box never shielded me from the parade of strangers who challenged my identity. It’s the olive skin, light eyes, and soft curly hair that confuses them and starts a guessing game about my ethnicity. Thrown off, they ask, “What are you?” like the gas station attendant who demanded to know if I was “Spanish, Eye-Talian, Injun, or Jewish.” When I told him I was black, he whooped and jumped back from the car, then yelled across the pumps to another gas man. “Come ’ere and lookit this gal. She says she’s black.”
Or the Egyptian cab driver who insisted I looked like his sister and needed to confess my Egyptian roots. Or the Puerto Ricans, Greeks, Berbers, and Sicilians who talk to me in their tongues. Or the white colleague who was so incredulous when I explained why I don’t try to pass for white that his face turned red. Or the house salesman in Louisiana who gushed over me until he understood I was black, and then slammed the office door and pulled the shade down.
Or the black people who call me high yellow, redbone, and half-breed. Or accuse me of thinking I’m better than them and enjoying near-white privilege. Some were discriminated against by light Negroes — refused from Negro bourgeois clubs or marriage to the lighter partners who could bleach their lines, because their skin was darker than a brown paper bag. Some thought that was my fault, although it was black people with two black parents who exacted those criteria, wanting to protect whatever paper bag brownness got them in white America.
This confusion has plagued me my entire life, and finally drove me to search the census records, to see how people like me have been counted through the years.
The Census Bureau says it is the leading source of data about the nation’s people and economy, guided by “scientific objectivity,” with data presented as statistical observation. But as I worked in a dark carrel of the National Archives outside Boston, cranking through wheels of census microfilm, I squinted through page after fuzzy page and saw something different. From 1790 to present, the census has singled out, separated, and subdivided those who are black and brown. From its inception, the census has not just counted Americans, but has deliberately drawn a line between a monolithically labeled white category and the endlessly sliced-and-diced others, the not-white.
The possible races open to respondents to the questionnaire have included Chinese, Korean, Hindu — a religion, not a race — and “half-Hawaiian.” East Indians appear from 1900 through 1950, when they apparently became white (even if they were Hindu), while Mexicans, previously considered white, were separated out in 1930. Native Americans weren’t counted at all until 1960. But while Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants had difficulty assimilating into the United States, the census never had them declare a separate, other, heritage. Their whiteness won out, because they were European.
The term mulatto, meaning half-white, which would have described my own mixed-racial makeup, first appeared in the census questionnaire in 1850. In 1890, the terms quadroon (one-quarter black) and octoroon (one-eighth) were added. Mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon disappeared in 1900, but the mulattos reappeared in 1910 and ’20. By 1970, with the Supreme Court’s Loving decision, the option was gone, suggesting that the category mattered to the government only when slave holders and their sons needed a way to record children they fathered as chattel.
For the first time, the 2000 census offered an option for mixed race that gave the respondent the chance to self-declare the components of his or her own identity. Dozens of racial and ethnic categories were listed for those who wished to check all the boxes of their multicultural, multiracial, selves, including a box for white, allowing people like me to acknowledge, legally and honorably, both sides of their heritage. After more than 200 years, the census had stopped dictating who people had to be and asked me to define myself.
And I did. And again in 2010, when the number of racial and ethnic census choices expanded further, I felt as if my country could finally see me. My mother’s race was recognized, as was my father’s. For the first time, I found some humanity in the government’s census boxes. Apparently many others did too. Between the 2000 and 2010 counts, the census reported that 7 percent of Americans identified as multi-race, a group that grew three times as fast as single-race people. Pew Research’s Multiracial in America report projects that the multiracial population will triple by 2060. Further, in 2020, the census is considering how to clarify categories for Latinos. While this newer recognition of mixed race gives me hope, I must also remember my own family history with it.
In 1969 I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to meet my father’s Great-Aunt Willie. I had been hearing about her all my life. When my grandmother in Buffalo dictated me letters to write, it was Willie to whom I wrote: the relative who never migrated North when others left.
I had trouble convincing the cab driver that a whitish-looking woman like me wanted to go to Willie’s segregated black neighborhood, but he took me. Aunt Willie, a dark, African-featured woman, came out in a wrapped dress complementing her stately figure. As she fussed over me as only an ancient relative with Southern manners could, I caught the scent of her hair’s straightening pomade.
“Oooo-weee, look who come to see the old folk,” she said. After settling my things in the guest room, she and I began to get acquainted while we sipped sweet tea and rocked gently in her metal glider on the front porch of her bungalow. Neither the extended awning overhead nor the ice clinking in our sweating glasses could shield us from the shimmering heat as we began unraveling our murky family connection.
I offered news and photos of my father and Grandma Belia in Buffalo, but Willie kept interrupting to introduce passersby, from the postman to neighbors going to and fro. I made pleasantries with everyone, even the woman who came up on the porch, leaning in to get a good look at me. With that Southern cover-all that excuses everything, she said, “Bless your heart, honey. But is y’all really related? You don’t look nothing like Willie.”
I answered her sweetly, “She’s my daddy’s aunt.”
Later, Aunt Willie considered the photo of my grandmother I’d given her. “Ain’t you jes’ the spitting image of Belia? You both got that white side, see? Like Acie in New York, too.”
What white side? Not my grandma. Not Aunt Acie, her cousin, whom I met once, on my teenage trip to Harlem. We were light, but we were black — just part of the chalk-to-charcoal spectrum of black people’s coloring. Or so I thought.
“I don’t know about their white side,” I said.
“Ain’t they told you ’bout it?”
She said grandma and her cousin Acie were born to two sisters who had been raped repeatedly by two white brothers. The men’s family owned the Georgia farm where the sisters worked. They were teenage girls in 1890 when Grandma was born, on the same farm where her ancestors had been slaves. In fact, there had been three children fathered by these men: Grandma, Acie, and Jack, who was still in Georgia.
“That’s how it was back then,” she said nonchalantly, running her napkin around the outside of her glass.
My throat caught as the meaning sank in. Decades after emancipation, that old Massa privilege of white men raping black women at will had been forced on my great-grandmother? How had the child of that rape, the grandmother who helped raise me, lived with the pain and humiliation all these years and never talked about it? I didn’t know what to do with my outrage. But I tried to stuff it because my aunt sat by, not outraged in the least.
No wonder Grandma called leaving Georgia escaping. I’d never given that old lady — now crippled by arthritis — credit for getting her family out. I’d never known that Buffalo, a wintry steel town, had been my grandma’s promised land.
“I guess she didn’t tell me about that because she was ashamed,” I said.
“’Shamed? What she have to be ’shamed of? No, everybody knew white men did that whenever they got ready, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. In your great-grandmaw’s time, there was no getting away from those men. She was ripe, you know, 16 or so, when she birthed your grandma Belia.”
Wasn’t that the same old nobodyness imposed on blacks during slavery? Was rape still the black woman’s story, living such degradation 30 years after emancipation just to subsist at the pleasure of whites? Aunt Willie’s flat recounting proved there was no getting away from it, even after blacks were free in the segregated South.
Sickened, I tried to imagine what my Great-Grandmother Frances and her sister Pearl had gone through, being raped on demand. Had her parents instructed her not to resist so they could continue to have the food and shelter that sharecropping the whites’ farm provided? Had the girls turned their faces away and their minds off in that devil’s bargain? Did the white men take what they wanted because they could, or was it justified in their minds as satisfying themselves in a way that preserved the purity of their own white women and Southern culture?
“Did my grandma know her father?” I asked Aunt Willie.
“It weren’t no secret,” she said. “Everybody knew what they done.” She could still picture that white man, coming around to their place every blue moon. He’d plop down on the porch chair with a bag of candy and set one of his kids on his knee for a little while. He was their father, but they all knew not to claim him beyond the bounds of their front yard.
So that’s what flowed in my veins: white “plantation” rape. It was one thing to read about this kind of history, but the subjugation of my own grandmother and her mother made my ulcer burn in the wall of my gut. Carrying that rapist’s blood in me certainly wasn’t the family connection I’d come to Alabama looking for. But it was a fact, a critical part of my Black Power education, to learn what violent race mixing meant only two generations before me.
The next time I went home to Buffalo, I asked my grandmother why she never told me about her white father. “Ain’t nothin’ to tell,” she said. “He wasn’t nothin’ to me.” She looked at me over her wire-rim glasses, her two gray plaits hanging on either side of a center part. “We weren’t the only kids like that. Where you think all these light-skinned Negros came from?”
I went back to the Georgia census to see how the official records showed grandma. Among the handwritten names, I found my grandmother in 1900 Lee County, named Bella, not Belia, as we knew her. Her race was marked Negro, not mulatto, and her father was marked as the black man who raised her, not the white man who raped her mother. Back then, no white men were fool enough to claim kinship with their illegitimate offspring. And apparently, that census worker wasn’t about to record their folly.
But today, instead of ignoring my heritage like Grandma and census takers did, I declare both my races, except to the hardcore obnoxious. I tell them I’m from Madagascar.
E. Dolores Johnson’s writing on race has appeared in the Buffalo News, the Writers of Color Anthology, and Lunch Ticket, with her memoir, Say I’m Dead, near completion.
This essay originally appeared on Narrative.ly.
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